Monday, November 2, 2009

Ethics for Postmoderns

Instincts and Impulses: the Wild Things

My favorite op-ed columnist has become David Brooks. I look forward to his columns in the NY Times, which often draw from the best of contemporary science and social science. To my sensibilities he offers well-reasoned commentary that is also cutting edge. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but I respect them for what he brings to bear on the issue at hand. Curiously, his musings often coincide with sermons I’m working on.

Last week, in a column "Where the Wild Things Are," Mr. Brooks wrote about the general notion of “character,” contrasting the point of view of philosophers and the point of view of psychologists regarding this notion. As an illustration he used the fictional character Max of the children’s book that’s a blockbuster movie du jour: “Where the Wild Things Are.”

According to Mr. Brooks, The Wild Things are outward expressions of Max’s own inner conflicts. For Mr. Brooks this illustrates the psychologists’ analysis of character. He wrote, “People have only vague intuitions about the instincts and impulses that have been implanted in them by evolution, culture and upbringing. There is no easy way to command all the wild things jostling inside.” Max is every girl/boy and every man/every woman, for that matter.

Earlier in the article Mr. Brooks wrote, “According to the psychologist’s view, individuals don’t have one thing called character."

“The psychologists say this because a century’s worth of experiments suggests that people’s actual behavior is not driven by permanent traits that apply from one context to another. Students who are routinely dishonest at home are not routinely dishonest at school. People who are courageous at work can be cowardly at church. People who behave kindly on a sunny day may behave callously the next day when it is cloudy and they are feeling glum. Behavior does not exhibit what the psychologists call ‘cross-situational stability.’

“The psychologists thus tend to gravitate toward a different view of conduct. In this view, people don’t have one permanent thing called character. We each have a multiplicity of tendencies inside, which are activated by this or that context. …We are a community of competing selves. These different selves 'are continually popping in and out of existence. They have different desires, and they fight for control — bargaining with, deceiving, and plotting against one another.'

“The philosopher’s view is shaped like a funnel. At the bottom, there is a narrow thing called character. And at the top, the wide ways it expresses itself. The psychologist’s view is shaped like an upside-down funnel. At the bottom, there is a wide variety of unconscious tendencies that get aroused by different situations. At the top, there is the narrow story we tell about ourselves to give coherence to life.

“The difference is easy to recognize on the movie screen. Most movies embrace the character version. The hero is good and conquers evil. Spike Jonze’s new movie adaptation of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ illuminates the psychological version.”

In my estimation this is an aspect, and therefore an illustration, of the postmodern context in which we live. Throughout my ministerial career I’ve lifted up the notion of character—that character, the coherence of right beliefs and right actions—matters essentially and ultimately. And of course the Unitarian way has been, from its origin two centuries ago, justification by character. This means we “save” ourselves by the good person we freely will to be.

Yet as David Brooks argues our so-called “character” is situational, suggesting at the very least that we are not as systematic in parsing our actions before doing them as we are circumstantial in responding.

(If I had the time and you the patience I would explore how historic checks on behavior, traditional systems of ethics and consequent morals, have failed, and so many, who would have once relied on these traditional systems, now founder. The culture’s moral compass is broken, hence the philosopher’s vision is discounted.)

I simply acknowledge that we 20th and 21st century Americans live fragmented lives in a fragmented world, where “the [old] center does not hold.” That is the definition of postmodernism in a nutshell, a context where sureties and coherence have deconstructed and the “wild things”—the instincts and impulses of the unconscious--threaten to run berserk within the individual and throughout society.

So, what’s left? What might we draw on for inspiration and guidance regarding outlook and behavior? We are in a dilemma, a postmodern dilemma, relative to a moral compass.

I argue there are a number of compelling relatively “new” ethics from excellent minds of the 20th/21st centuries. I’ve been writing about this in a new blog: ethics for postmoderns. The ethics I highlight in this blog were arrived at independently and therefore appear unrelated. However, I have an intuition that these ethics have what, in another context, the great biologist E.O. Wilson called consilience—a meaningful convergence, but we have yet to determine the convergence.

I think that the postmodern dilemma relative to character can be solved by the many ethics that compel our better behavior, in spite of “instincts and impulses … implanted in us by evolution, culture and upbringing.” As Mr. Brooks wrote "there is no easy way." I say we must seek understanding, consider a complexity of outlooks and integrate those that hold true, and continually seek the universal beyond the parochial. We must do the work, never content that we’ve exhausted the possibilities. Contemporary ethics are not static, nor are they encompassing.

As a consequence, each of us has to do the work as well as act/live with ambiguity that is a function of change and complexity and incompleteness.

The term I’m using postmodern—also postmodernity and postmodernism—is controversial and confusing when compared to the term modern. In general use, the term modern was used throughout the 2Oth century and is still used to describe the changing, cutting edge of thought and the arts.

Postmodern is a term popularized in the late 20th century to describe a transformed, post World War II world—a world of proliferating images, ideas, communication, and travel. (Television is often offered as a significant and symbolic phenomenon of postmodernity.) The proliferation resulted in fragmentation, along with a sense there was no longer any unifying point of view. Everything is relative, a matter of the “eye of the beholder.” For example a woman’s experience offers a different experience than a man’s; a gay person sees the world differently than does a straight; and so on and on. Systems of belief continually deconstruct, a word often used in conjunction with postmodern.

Simply stated, I’ve long argued that the modern era was petering out in the late 19th century and was finished off by the utter horror of World War I. There were a number of thinkers who anticipated and realized the end of the modern era, such as Nietzsche who by the mid-1880s had proclaimed the Death of God. (This really meant that a long prevailing Western Christian worldview/value system no longer prevailed.) My favorite voice of postmodernism is Albert Schweitzer. Among his extensive his accomplishments, he was a preeminent Christian theologian of his generation. At the turn of the century Schweitzer declared that the great organizing principle of Western Civilization, what he summarized the will-to-progress, was no longer was valid. (His striving to find a new organizing principle resulted in his Reverence for Life Ethic.)
Modernism maintained that civilization was progressing and improving—onward and upward: the will-to-progress that Schweitzer debunked. In contrast, postmodernism offers a variety of outlooks, while deconstructing any one system that claims overarching authority.

I like to use the concept, the category of postmodern because it provokes us into confronting a radically altered world. It incidentally casts us as contemporary heroes, making our way in an unknown landscape
Here I will mention courage and faith, two attributes a successful postmodern embodies: courage to honestly face Life’s complexity; and faith that to act from such a courage is never to fail, really, no matter the consequences.

My intention this morning is to offer you a few contemporary ethical perspectives that I find valid and valuable as starting points for postmodern ethics. They are well worth accepting and incorporating into how you relate to the world, even as you accept ambiguity and tentativeness. Week by week I’m adding another contemporary ethic to the blog where I keep them, for purposes of exploration and explication. (Again, I call my blog

Out of postmodernism’s critique of 20th century society arose a defiantly fervent affirmation of the value of the individual in the face of multiple social, economic, and even political oppressions, as well as the psychological wild things that are our instincts and impulses.

Three Postmodern Ethics: A Starting Point

I offer you what I see as a starting point for a humanistic ethic in our postmodern era: three distinct but related ethics. They involve a principle dear to our UU outlook, which we summarize as “the inherent worth and dignity of each person.”

First, the great American novelist John Steinbeck presented an impassioned, eloquent appraisal of the human condition in his epic novel East of Eden, c. 1950. Steinbeck used the story of Cain and Abel to illuminate the age old question of the nature of the human condition. Is it essentially bent toward goodness or to evil? In a clever way, Steinbeck looks at the translation of God’s words to Cain in the Genesis account: "The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in 'Thou shalt,' meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—'Thou may-est'—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if 'Thou mayest'—it is also true that 'Thou mayest not.'…

“'Thou mayest'! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. …

“[T]his is a ladder to climb to the stars." Lee's eyes shone. "You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness." …

“I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because 'Thou mayest.'”

I call this an Ethic of Choice, in which every choice has significance.

Similar to the Ethic of Choice, I’ve identified an Ethic of Nonconformity that urges us not to be anesthetized to our true nature by the demands and seductions of society, the conformities of group, business, and nation. In the 1960s Hannah Arendt reported on the Israeli trial of Adolph Eichman, culpable of the murder of tens of thousands Jews. She saw Eichman as a joiner and conformist and described him “as a leaf in the whirlwind of time.” He had no great hatred of Jews nor was he a rabid Nazi, he was a functionary who’d been indoctrinated to do his job by the state culture “that had lost its conscience.” He was somewhat bothered by the murders he was asked to facilitate, but declared that it would have been more unconscionable not to follow orders. In her analysis of the Eichman trial and of Eichman himself, Hannah Arendt realized 'the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught usthe lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” The banality of evil is a thoroughly postmodern judgment.

An Ethic of Nonconformity isn’t nonconformity for adolescent or contrarian purposes but in a heroic sense articulated by John Steinbeck, because the human soul is a glittering instrument. One resists conformity to be a postmodern Prometheus.

A third postmodern ethic I call the Ethic of Meaning. Its source is the psychologist Viktor Frankl who devised a “third” school of analytical psychology called logotherapy. Frankl was interned in one of the Nazi death camps, on the brink of death from exhaustion, malnutrition, illness, and numbing cold. He was part of work group making their way across a frozen terrain early in the morning when he had a life changing epiphany regarding the reality of love that he experienced as he imagined his wife. I’ve read you the passage about this epiphany from his classic book that established logotherapy, Man’s Search for Meaning (originally From Death Camp to Existentialism).

Later, Frankl declared, “[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This is to say that inner attitudes may transcend outer circumstances. Frankl pointed out this was true even for an inmate of a Nazi death camp. Frankl opined, “He may retain his dignity even in a concentration camp.”

In his well-developed scheme of logotherapy, Frankl spoke of the will-to-meaning as an essential aspect of every individual life. He wrote, “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond be being responsible.”

An Ethic of Meaning intimately involves each person’s unique life and the pressing circumstances of the larger life.


The Ethic of Choice, the Ethic of Nonconformity, and the Ethic of Meaning each speak to the transcendent possibility of the human condition.

I like how John Steinbeck phrased it: “the human soul…a lovely and unique thing in the universe.” Rather ironically, I think, the postmodern, eclectic ethics I’m identifying sees ordinary, everyday behavior as heroic and transformative—even the means of becoming god-like.
Just so you won’t think of these three starting point ethics as narrow, or even overweeningly proud or narcissistic in opening us up to god-likeness, there is this tempering counsel from Viktor Frankl:

“By declaring that man is a responsible creature and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. By the same token, the real aim of human existence cannot be found in what is called self-actualization. Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all, for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it. For only to the extent to which man commits himself to the fulfillment of his life's meaning, to this extent he also actualizes himself. In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side effect of self-transcendence.”

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